An unpleasant travel experience fired Frank Nneji’s ambition to establish one of the best mass transit services in the country. As the enterprise enters its 20th year recently, he tells Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha why the whole celebration is centred on the various publics that have kept the business going…
Frank Nneji has made land transportation as simple as A-B-C, but you may not need to be told that he had to roll up his sleeves and dig his feet in the mud, fired by his dream to build a mass transit company like no other in the country. Twenty years on, Associated Bus Company (ABC) has transited from a modest family business of the Nnejis to a growing conglomerate that many Nigerian families have bought into. His younger brother Jude was conscripted immediately after his national youth service, not given a chance to practice as a pharmacist. Jude also studied at the University of Nigeria Nsukka where Frank obtained a degree in Zoology.
So successful has the ABC initiative become that many are wowed and want to copy Nneji’s model. While everyone around him may be astounded, Nneji does not think he has done anything particularly outstanding. From the beginning he was determined to make a difference, a factor he considered key but often ignored by others-the human element. While the existing companies of yore thought more about buying fancy buses and could boast of many in their garage, Nneji decided to cultivate the friendship and loyalty of the people who use his bus services. Every category of human beings were catered to and made to feel special-from the smallest baby to oldest person, ABC was able to transfer some of the personal service mantra made popular by airlines into land transportation. For instance, a baby would have a court and be securely strapped into a seat.
How Frank Was Sucked into Mass Transit
The story is often told of how Frank was attracted to the mass transit business. He was said to have made a journey in a certain cramped bus, squeezed next to a woman who had a baby. Typical of Frank, he was not only concerned for himself, the image of that suffering baby who could not be comforted but cried all the way and his struggling mother was the tonic he needed to fire his ambition to establish a bus service that would truly care for the comfort of its passengers.
He followed this with a strict adherence to best global practices. The drivers never go beyond approved speed limit and for no reason would a passenger who does not have a proper seat ride in an ABC bus (no attachment).
Then he added a few aesthetics like making sure that the buses are always neat and that the staff, like drivers and conductors, appear in smart uniforms.
On-board entertainment became a regular exciting fare that passengers looked forward to. Others include travelling in an air-conditioned bus with toilet facilities.
Officer of the Order of the Niger
Frank Nneji has been elevated to the select group of distinguished Nigerians who are appreciated with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). He said the “greatest thing that I have gained from ABC is appreciation which people give. Not that ABC has done wonderful jobs, which other transporters cannot do but we take the lead for the revolution in the road transport industry. Trying to let the people know that things could be done better; road travel can be more enjoyable, more pleasurable more fun. It’s been an exciting 20 years for me." As its 20th anniversary enters turbo gear, for Nneji, the celebration is really about the people. And he has been blessed with good people. From the people who work for him and have imbibed the right work attitude to the extent that many of them feel that the company is theirs in more ways than one. A couple of them have worn the ABC badge proudly in as many years. More especially, Nneji is rolling out the drums in honour of his teeming customers whose loyalty is largely responsible for ABC”s widely acknowledged success.
With executive express, super sleeper and 40-sitter vehicles in which you can relax and sleep like a bed, the company came out with different services that are a novelty in Nigeria. One of such services is the ABEX Services, which makes it possible for mails and goods to be delivered over night at an affordable price. This service is made all the more easy by running on a fleet of 100, with more than 15 trucks and a daily departure of more than 80, movement of individuals, mails and goods. With over 1,200 people in their pay roll, ABC has gone into other areas like courier and hospitality.
The company kicked-off operation with six buses in Owerri in 1993, today, it runs a fleet of several vehicles travelling across the nation and the West African region. Nneji hammers on why he is particularly sentimental about the people element in his business.
He said: "ABC transport redefined the travelling experience for road travellers by initiating a conducive ambience to give a traveller a pleasurable trip. With the air-conditioned buses, snacks and entertainment on board, spacious leg room and souvenirs for passengers, travelling became a pleasurable experience.” To further explain this point, Nneji thumped his chest concerning ABC’s bid to give customers the utmost experience. "Before we came, people offered buses and dictated the conditions under which they will move you. Customers didn’t have a say; ABC changed all that. What we did was add customer service to the whole travel experience. We launched our website when most people didn't know Internet existed.
We introduced online ticketing where you can book tickets online. If you don't have enough credit on your card, you can put the ticket on hold and go to the bank. Even in our cargo business, once you send an item, the moment the item arrives, you receive an automated SMS that your item has arrived. If you look at where we are coming from, when Nigeria don't have telephone, we had to install FM radio in our buses where the drivers can reach us because we knew the importance of effective communication. We also have the call centres where customers can call and make enquiries."
Frank’s Grey Hair
Frank wears a crown of grey hair that made the reporters wonder if the heat from putting his grey matter to work all the time is getting to him, but he laughed it off, saying it was an apt natural physical attribute for a man born in the year of Nigeria’s independence. It could not also be that he was not taking care of himself.
In fact, he loves the good life and tries to give as much to the customers who travel on his buses. Apart from customer service, ABC is well known for its strict adherence to safety rules. They were the first transport company to install speed device to regulate traffic and speed control by the drivers. They also have the panic control button, which the driver can use when there is a crisis. This has distinguished the transport company from its competitors, making it the first choice for most travellers. Besides, the company has a training school for his drivers to ensure that they are updated on the latest skills.
Another great achievement for which he takes the crown is the opening of the ECOWAS route by launching the Coach West Africa, which conveys passengers from Nigeria to Ghana, passing through Benin Republic and Togo. This route alone created room for interaction between peoples of the region and gives a boost to tourism as well. It took 11 years to plan, but in the classical Frank Nneji style, when he was ready to launch, he pulled all the stop. For the maiden trip, the then Director General of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation, NTDC Mrs. Omotayo Omotosho, was on board. Nneji recalls the historic journey.
"If there is any service we are proud of, it is the Coach West Africa, which was launched in 2004. It’s one of the great stories I like to tell. I had to make a road journey down there on two occasions, taking my vehicles across the border to be able to experience the problems that people experience along that route. And of course after looking at it, we noticed that we needed to have some kind of a bilateral relationship with all the countries along the corridor, that is Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana, so we brought in the NTDC into the picture and on the day of the launch, the Director- General was on hand there meeting her Ghanaian counterpart. When we started we were running the bus on alternate days. That service has grown to a point where we do as many as 10 buses in a day on the peak period such as December and right now we are doing a minimum of four buses a day. That’s probably twice what we do on the Lagos to Abuja route. It’s been a tremendous success and it actually opened the tourism potential of West Africa because it came with a lot of education and enlightenment.
People didn’t know that Ghana was as close as this and people didn’t know that they can really explore West Africa and everybody didn’t need to go to Europe on every holiday. And going by the statistics from the Nigerian Immigration Service, the number of people going across the Seme border has tripled. It has encouraged interaction between the West Africa region, and I can say that since the signing of the ECOWAS treaty, the next good thing that has happened in that zone is the establishment of Coach West Africa in terms of empowering people of the region to interact. And of course when we opened that route a lot of other transport companies now go to Accra."
Even with the seeming competition, Nneji is unperturbed about the place of ABC and as they say, he is not ruffled. “Those who require our kind of services will come to us.”
The excitement of the past 20 years of running the successful ABC enterprise is only clouded by one thing-little progress on the level of infrastructure development in the road transport Industry.
New Terminal at Amuwo-Odofin
Nneji spoke at its ultra-modern bus terminal at Amuwo-Odofin, which is built like the best of multi-purpose office complex. The interview was conducted in the company’s boardroom and even though, the place is a beehive of activities, the mind-rubbing session with journalists was well shielded from the organised bedlam.
In 2006, ABC transport became a Public Liability Company, making it the first transport company in Nigeria to be mentioned in the Nigeria Stock Exchange. The CEO highlighted what informed the decision to go public. "Basically, it was for two reasons. One is survival and by survival I mean survival for today; financially and survival for tomorrow in terms of succession. We needed to have a company that has a broad outlook in terms of ownership, diversified ownership, which will lead us from one generation to the other so we had the big picture in mind. We needed also to increase equity and to achieve this we had to bring new owners and the only way you can bring new owners is by floating the shares so that people can buy and share in the equity ownership of the company."